Mediaplanet chatted with Canadian comedian and TV personality Howie Mandel about his mental health journey, reducing stigma, and the power of sharing.
What can the public learn about mental health awareness from your story?
People can learn to simply be aware of their mental health. There’s little awareness of mental health and that’s what the public needs to learn. People are often unaware of their mental health because we tend to focus on physical health, so if something hurts then you go and get it fixed or something is done about it. But if people don’t feel mental pain then they don’t take care of it, and most people can’t articulate or understand what mental pain is. I think mental health is just as important as anything you can feel physically.
For example, if you go work out, you need to stretch so that you don’t injure yourself. You need to take care of your mental health so that you don’t end up in a place where you can’t function. I don’t think that people are aware that this is a real thing and for a lot of people these are just words. You’re seeing all these flags being raised, but sometimes it’s too late.
What steps can individuals take to break the stigmas surrounding mental illness?
Those reading this right now need to continue talking about it and continue to be open vessels verbally and with their ears, for themselves and everybody around them. I think the first step is just talking. Not everybody has an answer, but as long as there’s dialogue, things will be better.
It’s funny how if you’re in an office and you lift something and your back goes out, a thousand people will give you the name of their chiropractor, but if you say, “I’m just down and feel so much pressure with what’s been going on in the last couple of years,” not everybody has the answers for you. If you’re at work and you say that you need to take off for an hour to see your dentist, nobody would think twice about it. But if you said that you need to take off for an hour to see your therapist, it’s not as easily accepted. I think we just need to be open, and we need dialogue. Normalize the dialogue around mental health.
What do you think the biggest misconception is that people have about mental illness?
I think the biggest misconception people have is that mental illness is unique to them, or else that it can’t happen to them. Whether you have issues to be diagnosed or feel completely fine, I don’t think that there’s a single person alive who won’t need help with their mental health at some point in their life. I don’t think that you can go through life without some need in that department or at least someone in your family, a friend, or somebody that you know needing it. The key is now to remove the stigma to make it seem like not such a rarity.
How has your mental health journey impacted your career as a comedian?
I think everybody’s mental health journey, including my own, impacts your entire life. I think of mental health as the paramount organ, for lack of a better term, that we need to take care of — and that we often don’t take care of. I always say that I wish people would take care of their mental health in the way that they take care of their dental health.
We regularly check in to see if we have a cavity and we keep our teeth clean, but it’s just not part of our normal curriculum to check our mental health. Daily happenings in the normal course of life, whether they’re related to career or something else, constantly challenge our mental health. These challenges may be due to pressure put on us in normal society as far as going to school, trying to fit in, maybe even being bullied, going to work, being diagnosed with something physical, becoming a parent, getting married, or breaking up — all of these are mental health challenges. If we can get a handle on it, be open about it, and take care of it, then it would make us a much more productive and healthy society.
There’s already a great and proven link between mental and physical health. If two people suffer from the same physical ailment but one of them has a worse mental health level than the other, you’ll find that their physical ailment is harder to cure and so taking care of their mental health is even more critical.
I come from a time when the stigma around mental health was heavier than it is now, and I was devastated by the fact that somebody found out I had issues. But it turned out to be the best thing ever because it taught me that I’m not alone and helped me realize that being able to communicate helps me function. The fact that I can function means that I can carry on with my career and do what it is that I need to do.
What advice would you give to anyone who’s currently struggling with their mental health?
Talk. Talk to absolutely everybody and don’t stop talking, whether it’s with your primary caregiver, a relative, your significant order, or someone else. The life-preserver that you throw out there is your words. I think the biggest problem is that most people suffer in silence and suffer alone. The connection that we have is vocalizing how we feel. With that being said, the first person you speak to may not offer any help, or may be judgmental or dismissive, but don’t stop there. Keep talking and reach out anywhere you can.